Orbán: Is There a Path to Peace?
Gladden Pappin reports on a conversation with Viktor Orbán in Budapest
BUDAPEST—Two themes emerged most strongly from the two-hour discussion Viktor Orbán held last Thursday atop the Castle Hill of Buda: Is there a road to peace? And can a political path forward be charted for restoring the West? The thread connecting the prime minister’s answers was how sound political strategy, as he sees it, could provide an answer.
These topics weren’t the syllabus for some wistful conservative weekend seminar, mind you. In the present context, peace in Ukraine, sanity in Europe and the restoration of Christian culture are existential questions.
The “context” includes above all Hungary’s eighty-mile border with Ukraine, just three hours’ drive from where we were sitting. Transcarpathia lies just on the Ukrainian side of the border, many Hungarians live there and the historical ties to Hungary color Budapest’s approach to the conflict. Budapest itself was a major recipient of Ukrainian refugees, as anyone who lived here last spring saw. Energy security has been a principal concern, as well. Some buildings, including schools, have had temperatures capped this winter. Meanwhile, Hungarian planes now help neighboring Slovakia patrol its skies.
So what did he say?
“The real problem,” Prime Minister Orbán told us, “is that there is nobody who would argue against the mainstream”—namely, the mainstream view that the war should be approached as a matter of being on the right side of history. The West has been caught between the view that materially supporting Ukraine is required in order to be on the right side of history, and the reality that such support carries risks with it. This analysis was the context for the prime minister’s conclusion that, “consequently, we”—that is, the primary Western actors whose view he was outlining, not Hungary itself—“are getting more and more involved in the war.”
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What evidently weighed on the prime minister was the lack of a heuristic for deciding between the, if you will, world-historical and risk-adjusted approaches to material support for Ukraine. Is direct support for Ukraine a world-historical imperative (if so, why not go all the way?), or does the risk of uncontrollable escalation advise caution? Orbán’s specific conclusion was that, because no Western actors are seeking to evaluate the whole situation or pick one answer, “the situation is getting worse and worse.” In no sense was his remark a declaration that the West is at war per se. Rather, it was a lament that the West is “getting more and more involved” because of its stepwise approach over the last year, where grand rhetoric about the clash between democratic and authoritarian regimes actually yields only marginal—but increasingly dangerous—commitments of Western resources.
For readers in the United States and western Europe, it may seem strange that the prime minister of a country of ten million thinks of his own standpoint as requiring a strategic view, while he laments that Europe has lost sight of its own interests. But Viktor Orbán has been in office longer than any European prime minister, and he has been in power at some moment alongside every U.S. president since Bill Clinton. Orbán identified three factors that have distanced European leaders from acting on behalf of their national interests. (To name just one instance that comes to mind for me, Germany has hardly objected while Poland has become America’s go-to ally over the last year.) First, the reality of multiparty government is that coalition politics incentivizes many heads of government just to try to stay alive till the next morning. The media and technological environment, second, encourages this by accentuating daily opinion polls and instant, continuous political give-and-take online. Finally and most important, these situations conspire to heighten the effectiveness of pressure from the United States.
“The real problem,” said Prime Minister Orbán, “is that there is nobody who would argue against the mainstream”—namely, the mainstream view that the war should be approached as a matter of being on the right side of history.
Political decisions now “are based on that information”—daily reports of polls, parties, personalities—“rather than on visionary strategy.” Because of Hungary’s modest size and sometimes vulnerable geographic position, formulating a visionary strategy is the only way for Hungary to survive. (The prime minister was accompanied by Balázs Orbán, no relation, his political director and a premier national geostrategist.) Historically, the prime minister observed somewhat later in the conversation, Hungary has been in one of two situations. At some times, outside powers dominated the country, as the Ottomans did, jeopardizing the country’s sovereignty while providing a partial “umbrella.” This type of situation Hungary wants to avoid. The other path, Orbán said, is “to find a special way of politics which provides the highest degree of your national sovereignty,” while having “a system of connections to other countries.” Having seen how being folded into a conquering empire involves occupation or involvement in unchosen wars, Hungary has been pursuing the path of national sovereignty.
The West has thus reached a kind of strategic paralysis (my term, essaying to capture the thought): it is not seeking an immediate cease-fire since that would fail the world-historical importance test, but it is not seeking an immediate or total victory since that would risk nuclear war. When asked what the answer to the conflict would be, Orbán did not hesitate to answer, almost axiomatically: “if we would like to have a peace, first we have to convince both sides to have a cease-fire.”
It was at this point that the prime minister introduced his impression of the Russian view: first, that they believe time is on their side; and second, that they consider that they need a buffer between themselves and NATO. Combined with the West’s stepwise approach, Russia’s divergent view also reduces the likelihood of an immediate cessation of the conflict. It was in this context that Orbán described his impression of Russia’s view of Ukraine. The primary goal of the Russians, he said, is to keep NATO away from the Russian border and, “if it is not possible, to create an Afghanistan between Russia and the Ukrainian border.” Contrary to some initial impressions, the prime minister did not equate Ukraine and Afghanistan, but said that Russia has been, unfortunately, creating a destroyed “safe zone.”
Under what strategy the United States has approached the last year is a question for another day, and not one that Prime Minister Orbán sought to disentangle. But Balázs Orbán, the prime minister’s political director, noted that the advantages accruing to America have been obvious. America’s role in determining the West’s policy has become decisive and Germany’s role has become weaker. The difficulty, Balázs Orbán noted, is that European interests are different and, as the prime minister said, articulated less and less.
I observed to the prime minister that ordinary Americans feel far removed from the conflict and are not certain what is happening—for example, whether Europe is particularly cold this winter. The media, I suggested, have kept the conflict at a slow boil, enough to justify aid packages but without making it a central public policy issue in the manner of the Iraq War or even the troop surge of 2007. It was in this context, as a reply to my question, that Prime Minister Orbán sought to highlight the reality of the war in Europe, for the twofold reason that it will soon become a question whether to send troops and to move into the territory of Ukraine. “Here these challenges are knocking on the door,” and while the West could have chosen to treat the conflict as a regional one, “the West decided differently, that we will internationalize this whole thing. And now we are in.” Orbán was communicating the reality of the situation, and pleading for the return of strategic thinking and national interest in Europe.
Europe, Alienated from Itself
Even before the conflict and Hungary’s strong preference for peace, relations between Budapest and Brussels were already growing frosty. Asked about this, Viktor Orbán said, “The real problem with Hungary in mainstream Europe is that we are successful. And by itself we are a demonstration that if you do differently, you could be successful. Because it’s obvious that you can do differently—but if you are successful, it means that you could be attractive.”
It was apparent to me well before the conflict that Hungary was a peaceful and pleasant place—not the armed peace of a gated neighborhood, but the peace of a country where essential things like the family were kept secure, and national cohesion was still possible. While the Western media have attempted to erect an iron curtain of disinformation around Hungary, a few months living here are a pleasant reminder of how a normal society is supposed to function.
“The real problem with Hungary in mainstream Europe is that we are successful.” —PM Viktor Orbán
In recent years the cultural witness of central Europe has been paramount, and Hungary has enjoyed active cooperation on a wide set of matters, particularly with its central European neighbors. But war and geopolitics are now “dominating all the other aspects,” said the prime minister.
Within Europe, the specific process that was put on hold concerned the formation of a new conservative bloc in the European Parliament. The next European election will be in 2024, but Fidesz left the center-right European People’s Party in 2021 and has not yet found a new home. Orbán described Giorgia Meloni’s victory in Italy as a “game changer” that should naturally strengthen the conservative bloc at the European level, or even make it dominant—had geopolitics not intervened and highlighted differences of perspective among right-wing parties. Currently, national right-wing parties are associated at the European level with the European Conservatives and Reformists Party or the typically more populist Identity and Democracy Party (which includes France’s Rassemblement national). In Italy, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia belongs to the ECR while their governing partner Lega belongs to ID. Sorting out differences among right-wing parties is tricky, but a dominant sovereignty-oriented European-level party could come into view. As an essential player in right-wing European politics, Hungary will play a key role in making that possible.
“The real problem,” said Orbán, “is that there is a cultural alienation” between Hungary and the European Union. Hungary, said Orbán, runs on a different kind of “cultural coordination system,” where the truths about human nature are respected, including the good of preserving Hungary’s shared national identity and culture. The divergence, said Orbán, concerns “basic beliefs and certain values about the world and human beings.” Orbán cited migration, family policy and European federalism as chief areas of divergence: Hungary is against migration as such, demurs from the view that LGBTQ is the next stage of human freedom and rejects the idea of a “United States of Europe.”
It was at this point that a questioner asked whether Orbán wanted to stay in the EU. The difficulty he identified was that of necessarily working in the EU but alongside those who disagree with you on these fundamental values. This point is a classic one: the EU’s original economic rationale has been supplanted by a desire to build a “United States of Europe” and to impose culturally liberal European values. Orbán emphasized that ordinary people cannot accept that mindset.
The difficulty for Hungarian strategy is that it remains within Europe but, due to its geographical position, it could only come to ruin (as it has before) in a world fractured by blocs that forbid countries at their peripheries from engaging with countries outside the bloc.
“Create institutions.” “Stay on the side of the people.” These were the watchwords of Prime Minister Orbán’s responses to questions, growing out of the geopolitical discussion, about whether Christian civilization can be restored and whether politics can play a role in helping.
In the face of a radical left-liberal cultural agenda, it certainly sometimes seems that a restoration of sanity is impossible. But Orbán judges that the tide could turn—perhaps quickly. “It’s difficult to imagine that that kind of extra radical liberal approach to the most important aspects of life can be maintained,” he observed. A return to traditional values could “be far quicker than we could imagine.”
On the religious question, Orbán was cautious but definite about the role that politics can play. First, Orbán distinguished (without separating wholly) between the political and the personal aspects of society’s relationship to God. Since Christianity has been in decline, he said, statesmen must try to understand why before simply launching into this or that means of addressing it. Bearing in mind the delicacy of faith, Orbán said that conservative government can provide chances for churches to teach the people.
Hungary, he noted, is the only country in Europe where church institutions are on the upswing. More than 70 percent of Hungary’s social support system, he noted, is distributed through churches (with administrative oversight), and the percentage of church-run schools has more than doubled under his government from roughly 7 to 17 percent. These improving trends appear likely to continue.
The point of these efforts is for the state to do what it can to support the opportunity for engagement with the churches. Hungary has spent considerable sums refurbishing churches and fostering church schools, without any kind of heavy-handed tactics (as are imagined by critics of governmental engagement alongside churches).
“It’s difficult to imagine that that kind of extra radical liberal approach to the most important aspects of life can be maintained,” Orbán observed. A return to traditional values could “be far quicker than we could imagine.”
On economic issues, Orbán and his political director both highlighted Hungary’s nonideological approach to conservative government. Whereas in the United States free-market ideology (my term) often obstructs conservative policy goals, Hungary has carefully adopted techniques such as energy price caps in order to pursue the ultimate goal of supporting ordinary people. While American conservatives might balk at Hungary’s energy price regulation, Balázs Orbán explained that it offers a way to support ordinary people while avoiding socialist policies such as unrestricted handouts.
All told, Orbán’s reflections amounted to a view of the role that political strategy ought to play in working past the ideological fixations of our age. Europe is harmed by prioritizing absurdities such as being on the right side of history, and it is harmed by visions of ever-further European integration under the guise of aggressive left-liberal cultural policy. In an age when few politicians have the luxury of thinking according to the classic guidelines of reason of state, speaking with Orbán is a rare opportunity to see how political reason is actually supposed to operate.
For Prime Minister Orbán, the end goal is in a way a somewhat modest one, made difficult by the crisis of the age.
“What we politicians can do,” said Orbán, “is to provide chances for the people to have a better life in terms of economy and financial surroundings. But to have a happier life, it’s not the job of the politicians.” Ultimately the people “have to change their understanding what is happiness in their life,” he said. “Without having that change, from [being] consumption-oriented, it’s hopeless to have any political changes long-term.”
“That’s the reason,” Viktor Orbán concluded, “why we have to find leaders who provide a personal example of being successful, speaking to traditional values, belonging to church communities, having personal faith—that could generate change.”
If Hungary is any indication, that project, while subject to constant dangers, is not impossible.
Western medias, unanimous, and it’s criticism of Viktor Orban. What a bunch of liars.